Yesterday marked the Trappist monk and author’s centenary birthday. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, describes Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, as a revelation to his younger self:
First published in 1948, Merton’s beautifully wrought story of a rather sad childhood, lonely adolescence and wild young adulthood, all of which led to a dramatic conversion to Catholicism and then a swift entrance into a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, was a surprise bestseller. Merton, a talented writer (and poet), spoke movingly about being lost and slowly finding his way to his vocation as a monk.
It’s hard to put a finger on why his most popular book continues to speak to people. Perhaps it’s the gorgeous prose. Perhaps it’s his transparency. Or perhaps it’s because so many people still feel lost. I know I did when I first read it at age 25. Stuck in a job I didn’t like, I needed someone to tell me it was okay to begin searching. In time, I ended up leaving General Electric and entering the Jesuit Order. His book changed my life.
Phil Cox Rose, however, reminds us that The Seven Storey Mountain ends with Merton still “an enthusiastic new monk” – but that later writings showed the complexities of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky:
Merton kept writing throughout his life, though, including a second memoir just five years later in 1953, The Signs of Jonas, which far less enthusiastically relates the struggles of monastic life, especially Merton’s conflicts with authority. Merton spent much of his time as a monk wrestling with abbots over his desire to travel to attend conferences and meet with some of the many important friends he’d made through his work, and paradoxically over his desire to retreat into a more hermetic life to focus on his own writing and contemplation rather than having to engage in the daily activity of the monastery. These conflicts can be seen either as bureaucrats denying the world the gift of more engagement with Merton, or as a conceited young monk who didn’t have appropriate respect for his vow of obedience or his role in a communal order. Most likely it was some of both.
Either way, when a new abbot took charge in 1968 and loosened the reins, Merton embarked on a whirlwind first trip to Asia, in which he met key Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama and Chatral Rinpoche. Through his letters from the trip we know he was thrilled by this work and looked forward to being in much deeper dialogue with Eastern faith leaders. In the midst of this adventure, at a hotel room in Thailand, he was accidentally electrocuted in the bath and died at 53, this latest part of his journey barely even started.
Reflecting on Merton’s impact on his own approach to the religious life, Parker J. Palmer underscores the way the “notion of paradox was central to Merton’s spiritual and intellectual life, not merely as a philosophical concept but as a lived reality”:
Merton taught me the importance of looking at life not merely in terms of either-or but also in terms of both-and. Paradoxical thinking of this sort is key to creativity, which comes from the capacity to entertain apparently contradictory ideas in a way that stretches the mind and opens the heart to something new. Paradox is also a way of being that’s key to wholeness, which does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.
For me, the ability to hold life paradoxically became a life-saver. Among other things, it helped me integrate three devastating experiences of clinical depression, which were as dark for me as it must have been for Jonas inside the belly of that whale. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the question that came time and again as my quest for light plunged me into darkness. In response, Merton’s lived understanding of paradox came to my rescue. Eventually I was able to see that the closer I move to the source of light, the deeper my shadow becomes. To be whole I have to be able to say I am both shadow and light.
Danny Sullivan summarizes Merton’s efforts to reach out in dialogue with other branches of Christianity and world religions, one of the more fascinating and controversial aspects of his work:
He also engaged other Christians, hosting inter-denominational discussions at the monastery as early as the 1950s. Today, Merton is remembered in the Anglican calendar on December 10, the date of his death. Anglicans seem to have a more rounded approach to holiness in that they are concerned not with canonisations, but with the witness of people who are worth remembering, even though they have imperfections. That seems more real than the conviction that only perfection is worthy of imitation.
Merton also famously reached out to Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. He had a particular affinity with the latter’s contemplative aspect and was regarded by Buddhists as one of the few Westerners who truly understood their tradition. Merton’s short preface in the book Thomas Merton on Zen is regarded as one of the finest summaries of the Zen tradition ever written.
While in Asia, he met the Dalai Lama three times. The meetings were marked by great friendliness and laughter. The Tibetan leader said it was only after meeting Merton that he began to fully appreciate Christianity. Whenever he is in America the Dalai Lama visits Merton’s monastery if he can and spends time at his grave.
Daniel P. Horan offers more on such efforts – which he believes is one of the reasons Merton still matters:
At the root of Merton’s engagement with people different from himself was the sense of “original unity,” which he recognized bound all people together as children of God. He understood that he could not have an authentic conversation about faith with others if he did not have a firm commitment and deep love for his own tradition. Before Vatican II promulgated “The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” Merton already understood that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [other] religions” (No. 2).
There is much that can be said about the still timely insights Merton presents to us about engaging other religious traditions. Perhaps the most pertinent is the need to live honestly in the tension between maintaining one’s own faith commitments and humbly learning from the experiences of others, all the while holding onto the belief that we are indeed, somehow, “already one.”
The Dalai Lama wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2010, “While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.” He went on to explain that it was none other than Thomas Merton, with whom he met personally in 1968, who offered him this insight. “Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.” For Merton then, as for the Dalai Lama today, compassion for and personal encounter with people of other faiths does not diminish one’s own religious convictions—if anything, it strengthens them.
Reviewing two books on Merton – John Moses’ Divine Discontent and Suzanne Zuercher’s The Ground of Love and Truth – Phyllis Zagano suggests that one of Merton’s poems reveals the deepest concerns of his life and work:
Merton wrote thousands of pages; his exegetes have written thousands more. The paradox of explaining simplicity is that it takes so many words. At the end of all the quotes and evaluations, in these two books and in the many others that look into Merton’s interior and exterior lives, the reader is left wondering: What is the measure of the man? What was he about? What was he looking for? What, in fact, did he do with his life?
Moses perhaps provides the answer with lines from Merton’s poem “St. John the Baptist”: “Waiting in darkness for the secret stranger / Who, like an inward fire, / Would try me in the crucibles of His unconquerable Law.” Only the darkness, the fire, and the crucible rend the soul of its sins and self, and allow a prophetic voice to emerge.
Recent Dish on Merton here.
(Video: footage of Merton’s final lecture given in Bangkok, Thailand, just one hour before he died of electrocution. His subject was “Marxism & Monastic Perspectives.”)